Carrots and Sticks and a Whole Lot More
My friend Ian once quipped: "According to 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town,' are we supposed to be good in order get toys or are we supposed to be "good for goodness' sake'?" It's an insightful point and a perplexing question to consider: are we to be motivated to do good by the inherent good of good, or by its reward back to us?
Maybe the answer is obvious to you, but it's not to me. Especially as I observe my kids in action. When Aaron stifles a whine because he knows he's in "no more warnings" land with me and that to whine would mean a swift and painful rap on his hands, or when I overhear Jada say to Aaron "c'mon and let's put our toys away so we can go downtown and have fun with Dada," it makes me feel like it is important for them to have incentives and good that they are properly responding to them. But then I wonder if they should be learning to not whine or to put away their toys because those are the right things to do, irrespective of carrots and sticks. My tentative answer, although I welcome the opinion of others, is to mix in a little of both: there will always be consequences for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior, but there will be some chores that are done out of an expectation that they are part of the obligation and responsibility of being in this family.
But what about us adults? In our workplaces, in our relationships, in our understanding of where we stand before God and where we deserve to be for eternity? Are we purely transactional in nature (everything has a price, every situation and action dictated by a cold-blooded cost/benefit analysis), or are we "good for goodness' sake"? And, what does it mean to be "good for goodness' sake," anyway: why does "goodness" have a "sake" we should be motivated by?
The Christian narrative, which you may or may not detect strands from amidst the holiday hubbub, appears to me to be a solid helping of both carrots and sticks as well as something deeper. Whether in the Old or New Testament, people were drawn to the faith by something self-serving: a desire to be made clean, well, or whole. And yet it was never in a way that put self at the center, but that rather exalted God as the ultimate Provider, Commander, and Guide. And it was never cold and calculated, but rather warm and emotional and passionate and all-encompassing.
As I watch my kids respond to incentives, and hope to mold them into people who do good for goodness' sake, I pray that we all will also encounter God over the seasons of life, understanding the economy of carrots and sticks He has laid out before us, and being swept up in a relationship and narrative that is full of vitality and affection and reverence and commitment. The underlying message of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" may remain ambiguous to me, but to me there is far less ambiguity as to what is being expressed by God in the baby in the manger, and far less ambiguity as to how I ought to respond.